As my 11-year old son prepared for his first day as a sixth grader, I had begun to think about what I’ve done as a parent to get him to this stage. Though I’m not a fan of sports metaphors, I can’t help but think of my parental ups and downs as home runs, doubles, foul balls or woeful strike outs. Luckily I’ve had more successes than failures.
There have been prospective, new and overwhelmed parents who have asked me for general parental advice, like how to handle situation X or prevent incident Y from happening again.
I never attempt to pass myself off as a child psychologist or a licensed counselor when giving advice. Furthermore, I don’t pretend to be the Martha Stewart of parenting and have found those who act as such arrogant and pretentious. I always listen closely before I dole out advice nor do I take umbrage if it’s not followed.
Though my journey as a parent is not complete, there are rules that I have discovered and followed that have served me well, which I’ve passed on to others.
So here are my ‘Top 10’ Parenting Tips that have helped make my preteen son a responsible, observant and thoughtful individual (when he’s not driving me semi-bonkers by bouncing between ages 7-17 without giving me prior notice):
1. Make sure your child knows he/she will face consequences for their actions, no exceptions. If your child figures out that you’re what I define as a ‘serial warner’ (i.e. someone who gives their child constant and repetitive warnings with little or no follow through on their ‘threats’) then you’re setting yourself up to be challenged by your child regarding every request or demand you make of them. The last time I’ve had a major challenge from my son was when he was 5 years old. He was giving me a lot of backtalk because he thought it was funny. I wasn’t sure if the backtalk was just a phase or something that would become a bad habit, therefore I decided to play things by ear. Unfortunately, it only got worse, which is when I threw down the hammer. I told him that if he did it one more time I was going to take away all his toys for a week. He didn’t believe me so he ended up watching me bag up all of his toys and remove them from his room. Afterwards I taped a calendar to his door with a big ‘X’ over every day he would be without his toys. He was stunned. Sometimes he would sit on his bed and just stare at his empty floor. When the seven days were up I returned his toys without saying a word. Drastic? Yes. Successful? Most definitely. He finally learned what consequences meant and that I meant what I said, which improved our relationship significantly.
2. Show respect for the body and its bodily functions. I cringe whenever I hear parents and their kids use cute nicknames for body parts such as calling a penis a ‘wee wee’ or a vagina ‘little girl parts.’ How are you going to teach your child to respect their body and the bodies of others if you mystify it so much that they inadvertently don’t value its importance? I’m not saying that you should use the word ‘excrement’ or ‘sh*t’ instead of ‘taking number two.’ However, using proper names for body parts, explaining how they work and the similarities and differences between the male and female anatomy will go a long way in helping your child understand proper and improper body boundaries and most importantly his/her sexuality when the time comes.
3. Don’t run from questions because you feel that your child isn’t ready for the answer or you didn’t see it coming. Most of the times it seems parents are the ones who don’t want to deal with a question. I ended up having my first serious talk about sexuality with my son when he was eight-years old. I was watching a Boondocks episode when two male rappers/characters on the show admitted they were attracted to each other and started kissing. My son happened to walk in on the episode and asked ‘Why are those guys kissing?’ I could’ve said something to the effect of ‘I’ll talk to you later about it’ or ‘you’re too young right now for that conversation’ but I didn’t. I somehow knew that this ‘talk’ was going to happen now so I answered his question, which led to other questions and discussions about heterosexuality, homosexuality, bisexuality and transgender relations. As a result he is receptive to all forms of expressed affection and to those who are part of the LGBT community. Most importantly, my son realized that he could ask me anything without being prejudged or shutdown. I’m not advocating that all parents should be as forthcoming because obviously each child’s emotional maturity is different. However, before you go into deflect mode on topic X make sure you feel it’s necessary and not because you simply don’t want to deal with the topic yet. Remember – it’s not about you – it’s about your child.
4. Know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em. This lyric from Kenny Rogers’ The Gambler’ song is also apropos when dealing with your child. You have to figure out what battles are worth fighting. Are you trying to teach your child a lesson or are you just standing your ground to prove you’re the one in charge? For example, when my son hit fourth grade we used to battle over what he would wear to school. I would try to make sure that he went through most of his wardrobe so that he wasn’t wearing the same combinations all the time or clothing combo nightmares. We locked horns regularly which started to drive my husband up a wall. I eventually realized that by forcing my son to wear what I picked out put us both in a bad mood. We eventually came to a compromise where he could pick out what he wanted, but if his mom and dad didn’t like his wardrobe selection he had to change. In this instance, my decision to ‘fold’ made things better for mom, dad and son. As a parent you will find yourself having to re-learn this lesson with your child so don’t be surprised that you will be traveling this road again several more times.
5. Sometimes you have to let your child struggle in order for them to learn how to accomplish things on their own. As a parent you want to help your child at all times, especially when they’re young. But at some point you have to let them figure things out on their own, even when they’re not successful at it (ideally without allowing it to turn into a meltdown). Whether it’s looking up a word in a dictionary; opening a container or getting dressed. It’ll teach them to keep trying instead of immediately running to you or others for help.
6. Don’t overschedule your child with activities. We all want to keep our kids active so that they remain physically and emotionally healthy and hopefully have a good time. But think about the many things your child does on a regular basis: school, homework, childcare, extracurricular activities, hanging out with family and friends, tutoring, afterschool clubs and much more. Your child has a very busy life. But just like adults, kids need downtime as well. Don’t look at it from the viewpoint of you being a bad parent for allowing your child to occasionally to sleep in late on weekends, chill out in his/her room or watch television zonked in the family room. Look at it as allowing them time to rest, which they will always need.
7. It’s not too early to assign chores/responsibilities to your child. By the time I was twelve I was assigned several chores, including cleaning the bathroom. I’m not one of those old-school parents where I think today’s children are completely infantilized. However, I do think that parents are waiting too late to assign their kids regular chores to do. As a result, their child doesn’t handle responsibilities well – or worse, you end up doing it yourself. Just start small such as having them cleaning their room, helping to unload/reload the dishwasher, putting their dirty clothes in the laundry bin, taking out the garbage or placing dishes in the sink after dinner. This will get them in the habit of doing things for themselves without prompting from their parent(s).
8. Sleepovers and playdates are great for children and parents. When you have your child’s friend over for a playdate/hangout or sleepover it’s a win-win for the child and the parent. Your child has someone to play with, and it gives you time to do other things. If your child goes over to someone else’s home then you have that much needed quiet time for yourself or with your significant other. Therefore strive hard to connect with the family of your child’s close friend(s) so that you both get in the habit of having hangouts and sleepovers at each other’s homes. Besides it being a good idea for your child’s social and emotional development, it will save you a lot of money on babysitters.
9. Do your best not to fall into ‘assigned’ parenting roles. This is sometimes hard to do. Depending on the set-up of how your family works (i.e. single parent, working parent with stay-at-home parent), this can dictate the parental dynamics of how you interact with your child. Nevertheless, don’t allow how you interact with your child to be determined by your gender, your preferred interests or disciplinary ideology. You don’t want to be viewed as the no-fun, no playtime, always-make-me-do-stuff-I-don’t-want-to-do or ‘drill sergeant’ parent. Mix-up your roles from time to time; do things that you don’t normally do with your child so that he/she sees you in different a light. For example, if you’re the ‘homework parent,’ maybe next time when you go to the park you should seriously hit the jungle gym with your kid. If you’re the ‘basketball coach,’ take a detour and hang out at the library with your kid on occasion. Going outside the box a bit will bring more parental balance in a two-parent household. And for single parents, your child will be more aware and hopefully appreciative of the many hats that you can and do wear.
10. Don’t inadvertently put them in a bubble in your effort to protect them from what’s happening in the world. As a parent you don’t want your child to experience any bad feelings (i.e fear, hurt, pain, embarrassment, etc.) until they’re able to handle them. But sometimes things don’t work out that way, so you have to prepare them to handle these emotions when that time comes. My husband and I have had talks with our son about life and death; we’ve also talked to him about racism/racial bias, driving while black, and police brutality because we know that it may be just a matter of time when he will have to deal with these issues as an African-American male. He has seen videos, news, movies and documentaries about the black experience in America (Roots, Fruitvale Station, Central Park Five case, civil rights movement, death of Eric Garner and Trayvon Martin, etc.) to help him understand his history better. If I had a daughter I would’ve added gender bias to the conversation as well. Kids need to know that the world isn’t always so wonderful, which is possible to do without scarring them. Start slowly by picking a movie or program for you to watch together and make sure to allot time afterwards to discuss it with them, to answer any questions they may have. It’ll be a teachable, bonding moment for both of you.
Not all children are alike so don’t push them down a path that they’re not ready to take. However, don’t hold them back just because you’re not ready to take that journey with them. Yes, the advice sounds simple, but following through on it will be hard. You must always keep in mind that your job as a parent is to help your child grow so that he/she is eventually able to take care of themselves.
Anything less than that then you’re not doing the one job you should be doing as a parent.
Suggested Parent Resources:
Mr Nussbaum: A wonderful website has extensive reading, math, social studies and science tools for grades K-8 that are fun and challenging. Lessons can be done individually by the child or in concert with a parent.
Khan Academy: If you find yourself flummoxed by math, science, history or any other academic questions that your child asks you this is the site for both of you. It’s a free site full of straight-forward information (standard videos, interactive videos, etc.) for students, parents, teachers or anyone who wants to learn.
Library of Congress: Their ‘Kids and Families’ page is chockfull of online information on books, history, geography, music and much more.
Scholastic’s Parent and Child’s 100 Greatest Books: List contains classics and other well-known books grouped by age and genres.
50 Multicultural Books Every Child Should Know: Books for ages preschool to twelve that have main characters who are people of color.
YouTube: A great place to see and hear music (full albums, videos, etc.) which you can share with your child. A lot of the music downloads have lyrics to them to aid in any sing-along efforts. It’s a fun, easy and informative way to spend time with your child while sharing and learning about a wide variety of music genres.
Common Sense Media Best Documentaries: Good list of documentaries that are educational, uplifting, serious and funny and can be viewed by the entire family.
PBS American Experience: Great learning tool for kids in that its documentaries are straightforward and handle sensitive material in an appropriate manner.
Ever find yourself out of batteries for Toy X or Toy Y? Instead of loading up on tons of AA, AAA, C or D batteries some of which you might not ever need. Here’s how to make more specific battery purchases for child’s toys. How do you do that? All you need is a bunch of file folder labels and a pen or marker. Just place a label on your child’s toy (outside the battery compartment area) designating the number and type of batteries needed. For example on my labels I write “3/AAA” which means that toy X needs three, triple AAA batteries. Very simple. Very easy. It’s a lot better than having to create a handwritten or typed list of what toys need what batteries – a list that you will never update and will probably lose in the foreseeable future. So now whenever your child comes to you whining about how their toy is no longer working all you have to do is check the label and put in the new batteries. Of course you still have to make sure that you have batteries in stock in order to make full use of this tip, but I don’t have a tip for that.
Mother’s Day is coming up this Sunday which is always a trying time for me. Trying in the fact that I always have trouble finding the right card for my mother. It’s not that I don’t love my mother or we have had a difficult relationship. We have had our moments of anger and hurt, but nothing that has severely affected my feelings toward her. I love my mother very, very much.
Yet whenever I have to start shopping for a Mother’s Day card it makes me realize that my relationship with my mom is not as ideal as I would like it to be. I’ll see phrases such as ‘You are my best friend’ or “I can tell you anything” or “You have been there for me like no one else” or “You have been a great sounding board.” My mother has been none of these things.
It’s not all her fault since I have always been pretty reticent about sharing my thoughts and hurts with anyone until I met my husband. However my mom has always been a cautious person. As a result whenever I have to make a major decision she has always told me that she knows that I will make the right call without ever telling me what she thinks on the matter. There have been many occasions that her silence has left my sister and I floundering over what to do during our teen years at a time when we really needed to hear her voice. Oftentimes when she does decide to speak up its when she really should have kept her thoughts to herself. This usually happens because she had to “get it off her chest” as she likes to say. I’ve told her that she may feel better getting it off her chest but she never thinks about the impact of what she has said on the other person. Sometimes she gets it, but most of the time she doesn’t.
What is so strange about my mother is that she can be very forthright if not downright ornery when she decides to step up and spout her opinion. No one can ‘tell her differently’ meaning that she can’t be dissuaded even when her opinion is idiotic. Sometimes her arguments and responses are so petulant that I’m amazed that it’s coming from someone who is in their seventies. At the same time she is practically helpless when it comes to making a decision and needs her hand to be held or for someone to make the decision for her. I have often wondered how such two such distinct personality traits; bossiness and helplessness can co-exist in the same person, but my mother is living proof.
Once in a while it makes me sad and irritable that my mother is not like the Hallmark card moms. I try to make excuses for her, to try to explain away the disappointment. Maybe its’ because she was the youngest sibling amongst her brothers and sisters. Maybe it’s because she’s a lot older than the mothers of some of my friends. Maybe it’s because she lived with my aunt for such a long period of time who took care of everything. But there are no excuses, she is who she is and nothing is going to change that.
So as I browse the rows of multi-colored cards expressing feelings of love for mothers everywhere. I know that I will find the right card. It will say that I love my mother. It will say that she has supported me through thick and thin. That she helped me to become the person that I am today. All of which is true. It’s about emotional degrees really when looking for a Mother’s Day card and finding the one that best fits or describes your relationship. I usually stick with the “love you very much” and “hope that you have a wonderful day” pronouncements. I wish that my cards were gushing with mushy sentiments but that simply doesn’t describe our relationship. My mom knows that there is this quiet barrier in our relationship but she has learned to ignore it or maybe by now she has forgotten it ever existed. Luckily for me Hallmark and a nice gift helps me forget as well. Until next year.